The newest Heritage Minute will celebrate the historic Punjabi community of Paldi, B.C.
Founded in 1916 on Vancouver Island by Sikh immigrants, it was one of Canada's first multicultural towns
The smell of burnt toast leading to a cure for seizures. Cutting the bottom out of peach baskets during the invention of basketball. Jacques Cartier coining the name "Canada" based on wrong information from a priest. If these stories seem familiar, you might just be a fan of Heritage Minutes — the iconic series of mini-documentaries produced by Historica Canada that have been tickling Canadians with snippets of history since 1991. Many of the most classic lines are still burnt into our collective memory.
Now, a pair of filmmakers based on the West Coast will be adding to that collection of short films with a Heritage Minute centered around Paldi, a historic community founded in 1916 on Vancouver Island by Sikh immigrants.
Set in 1927, Paldi: A Place for Everyone focuses on the real-life story of Punjabi immigrant Bishan Kaur as she moves to Paldi, British Columbia. Over the course of one minute, we see Bishan's years-long transformation into a community leader. The Heritage Minute is a snapshot of a community widely recognized as one of the first examples of multiculturalism in Canada.
Hayley Gray, one of the co-directors of the Paldi Heritage Minute, first learned of the community's story while co-developing a film with her creative and romantic partner, Elad Tzadok, called Unarchived. Produced in cooperation with the National Film Board, the feature-length movie is an anthology of four documentary shorts representing diverse and underrepresented stories of Canada.
"Paldi was so well documented and had so much beautiful 16 mil footage, Super Eight footage, photos," Gray says. "We got to kind of connect with that community through that project."
While Unarchived was being shot in the summer of 2021, fellow filmmaker Anaïsa Visser — who became friends with Gray when they worked together on an indie horror feature in 2018 — read about an interesting call for film proposals: Historica Canada was seeking pitches for Heritage Minutes. Visser reached out to Gray, and the two of them agreed that Paldi would be a perfect choice for a submission.
Historica Canada says that they generally only make two Heritage Minutes per year and receive, on average, over 100 submissions per year. From a shortlist, five to ten pitches are then analyzed by historical consultants and chosen with an eye to community representation, budget expertise and the overall filmmaking experience of the applicants.
Gray and Visser fit the bill, and their Paldi proposal was greenlit in January. Prior to this project, though, they each had very different experiences with Heritage Minutes in their own lives.
"I didn't grow up in Canada at all, so I didn't really know what a Heritage Minute was for the longest time," says Visser. "My ex-husband inherited a LaserDisc player and a LaserDisc of some Heritage Minutes. That was my first exposure to it. I've actually not seen nearly as many, probably, as your average Canadian who's grown up seeing them all."
Gray, on the other hand, is one of those average Canadians.
"I grew up making jokes about burnt toast Heritage Minutes, and then watching all of them both in school and then on the television at home," she says. "They were a huge part of my childhood growing up."
With the topic of Paldi, however, the co-directors are touching on a topic that carries weight and significance for both of them.
The immigrant community is recognized as an early example of Canada's multiculturalism, welcoming South Asian, Japanese, Chinese and European immigrants. Visser is herself an immigrant to Canada, as well as a biracial person with Dutch and Pakistani roots. She was born in Zimbabwe and also lived in Mozambique, the United States and France prior to Canada.
"What really resonates with me about Paldi as well is like, when you come from a place and you go to a new place — and I've done that many, many times in my life — you have a really unique experience of culture and what you bring with you, and what you adapt or adopt from your new place and your new community," Visser says.
"I think Paldi's a beautiful example of that because they brought their own communities and their own culture and their own thing, but they were in the realm of the pioneers of that Canadian multiculturalism that we now are so proud of."
When you come from a place and you go to a new place — and I've done that many, many times in my life — you have a really unique experience of culture and what you bring with you, and what you adapt or adopt from your new place and your new community.- Anaïsa Visser, co-director
Gray also sees the importance of the work of the community and its leaders — people like Joan Mayo, daughter-in-law of Paldi co-founder Mayo Singh Minhas — in paving the way for the rights we enjoy today in Canada. Part of the approximately nine-month production process included meeting with Joan Mayo and other Paldi descendants, some of whom still attend the Gurdwara in Paldi — one of the last remaining structures of the former town.
The production team also found resources through the Cowichan Valley Museum and the South Asian Canadian Legacy Project, including photos that helped guide their costuming and location scouting for an appropriate location. Gray and Visser say these production design tasks that went into the cars, buildings, and look of their Heritage Minute were particularly time-consuming, taking months to get the look right.
It's a tremendous amount of work for what will ultimately be a 60-second clip, but Gray says it's important to recognize these types of stories.
"I am also someone in an interracial relationship, and that's not something that I take for granted," Gray says.
"From the work I've done in B.C.'s history, in Canada's history, the two stories that we see the least are BIPOC women's stories, and marginalized and racialized communities working together despite the oppression from the Canadian Government. I feel like what we've been able to do with Paldi is speak to both those things, and I'm really happy and proud of it."
The completed Paldi Heritage Minute is anticipated to be released in early 2023.